Florida Keys in 5…

By Chelle Koster Walton Published December 17, 2009 Fox News
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Watch dolphins dance! See grown deer the size of golden retrievers! Be amazed by fire swallowers and escape artists! Come one, come all to one of America’s most scenic drives: the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) threading through 106 miles of the Florida Keys, weaving together a series of classic, natural, and funky wonders that make the Keys its own state …of mind, anyway.

The highway’s attractions often have formal addresses but are better known – and found – by their mile marker (MM) numbers that sometimes offer additional designations for the Ocean Side (OS) and Bay Side (BS) of the highway.

5… Dive, channel Bogey in Key Largo (Mile Marker 106)

As classic as Bogey and Bacall, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102601 Overseas Hwy. [MM 102.5 OS], 305/451–1202, $4.50, www.pennekamppark.com) epitomizes one of the Keys’ finest assets: the best and most extensive living coral reef in the country. Besides the Christ of the Deep statue – a submerged, two-ton statue of Jesus Christ – underwater sightseers can explore 40 species of coral and a rainbow of sea creatures in more than 500 varieties. The park runs scuba diving, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat tours to the reef. Or you can snorkel off the main beach, where you can also peer into its visitors’ center’s aquariums. Rangers at the center explain how they are re-growing damaged coral.

In Key Largo, any number of outfitters can take you snorkeling, diving, fishing, or simply joy-riding. Grab a glimpse of the African Queen, the original boat used in the eponymous film, on display at Holiday Inn Docks (MM 100), then grab a cold one at the Caribbean Club (MM 104 BS, 305/451–4466), where scenes from Bogey and Bacall’s “Key Largo” were shot. Get a true taste of Keys seafood and spirit at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (99336 Overseas Hwy. [MM 99.4 BS], 305/451–3722). Ask about the hogfish special du jour.

4… Meet the dolphins, eat the snapper in Islamorada (Mile Marker 90)

The second oldest marine mammal facility of its kind, Theater of the Sea (84721 Overseas Hwy. [MM 84.5 OS], 305/664–2431, $25.95 for animal shows, www.theaterofthesea.com) has been using dolphins to draw tourists to Islamorada since 1946. The dolphin, sea lion, and parrot shows, along with a bottomless boat ride, continue to delight visitors. For various fees the theater also lets you touch or swim with dolphins, sea lions, and sting rays.

Not to be crass, but while watching sea creatures is fun in Islamorada, catching and eating fish are what put Islamorada on the map – it’s the sport fishing capital of the world. At Robbie’s Marina (77522 Overseas Hwy[MM 77.5 BS], 305/664–9814 or 877/664–8498) you can feed giant tarpon or catch a fishing charter. And naturally, fish figure big time on local menus. Morada Bay Beach Café (81600 Overseas Hwy. [MM 81 BS], 305/664–0604) cooks ’em up fresh and serves them right on the beach. The chef does a worthy coconut crust for the yellowtail snapper, the local delicacy. And if memories of your fish encounters won’t suffice, art galleries such as Redbone Gallery (200 Industrial Dr. [MM 81.5 OS], 305/664–2002) specialize in sport fishing art.

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